Excerpted from MORE THAN I IMAGINED © 2023 by John Blake. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I stopped to listen to a chorus of birds singing in the trees above me and gaze at the yellow black-eyed Susans blooming next to the church in front of me. It was the first blush of spring, and I was about to walk into the modest brick building for Sunday morning worship. The church stood on a corner in an Atlanta neighborhood dotted with large, handsome, Craftsman-style houses, white picket fences, and magnolia trees.
I was there for work, not worship, but it was hard not to enjoy the tranquil setting.
It was four years after Aunt Sylvia’s death, and my responsibilities at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had expanded to include writing about religion. I’d heard about an unusual church with a special pastor no more than twenty minutes from where I lived, so I decided to visit on a Sunday to find out more.
I took a program from an usher at the front door and sat in the back pew. An organist in the choir loft opened the service with a rousing melody that elicited some scattered amens. After he finished, a slight, blond middle-aged man in a preacher’s robe came down from the pulpit, stood in front of the pews, and faced the congregation with raised hands.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” the man said in a booming voice.(1)
The pastor returned to the pulpit to commence the service. During a rollicking gospel hymn, I scanned the pews to study the church members. Clean-shaven white men in suits who looked like CEOs stood next to young Black men in dreads. A young white couple tousled the curly hair of a Black child who was sitting in the woman’s lap. A burly white man who looked like a biker shared a hymnal with a Black woman in an African headband and a kente cloth.
My eyes drifted to something else above the choir loft: a large stained-glass window depicting Jesus ascending to heaven. It had been altered. Jesus’s face had been painted brown, and two women had been inserted into the group of eleven male disciples watching Jesus ascend.
I wrote the pastor’s name in my reporter’s notebook: Reverend Gibson “Nibs” Stroupe. I placed the notebook in my back pocket and left before the benediction.
I would return to this church—again and again. Nibs, and the other people at Oakhurst, would open my eyes to a world I never knew existed.
I was close to giving up on interracial churches by the time I visited Oakhurst. Part of it was because of my experiences in South Central. I couldn’t find an interracial church in L.A. and ended up attending a Black congregation in South Central. Most of it, though, was because of an experience at another interracial church in Atlanta a year earlier.
When I arrived at the church, it was predominantly white, with Black members making up only about 15 percent of its congregation. More Black people joined the church as the surrounding neighborhood changed. When Black membership surged to more than half the congregation in a five-year period, white members fled. It was an ecclesiastical version of “white flight”— the term used to describe whites fleeing neighborhoods and schools when the number of Black or brown people tips over a certain ratio,(2) usually around 20 percent. Scholars who have studied multiracial congregations say white church members tend to leave a congregation when their number falls below 50 percent.(3)
The megachurch eventually became all Black, except for the white ministers who led the church. I left to attend another Black church. I was tired of segregated churches, whatever the color. I wanted to feel what I first experienced attending an interracial church while at Howard.
To research my article on Oakhurst, I left an interview request on the church’s answering machine. Not long after, I got a call from Nibs. He wanted to talk over lunch. We set up a time for the next day. Maybe this interracial church will be different, I thought as I drove to meet him.
He asked that we meet at Piccadilly, a restaurant in a mall just outside Atlanta. He was wearing Hush Puppies, beige slacks, and a button-down shirt, and he was waiting for me when I arrived. He was the only white person in a cafeteria filled with Black people from the working-class Black neighborhood that surrounded the mall.
He smiled and extended his hand. “Thank you for getting together,” he said in a twangy southern accent.
We sat at a booth, and our talk drifted to his background. He said he grew up in the Jim Crow South, spending most of his childhood in Arkansas near the Mississippi Delta. He was a teenager when the Civil Rights Movement rolled through in the 1950s and ’60s. He said he was opposed to it and told me he once believed that Black people were biologically inferior, civil rights demonstrators were outside agitators, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a communist who just wanted people’s money.
He said this all matter-of-factly between sips of sweet tea.
My eyebrows rose.
“No one ever sat down and told me that Black people were inferior,” he said. “It was just in the air. We breathed it in.”
“What changed you?” I asked.
He said his transformation was gradual. He watched on TV as King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and wondered if maybe he was genuine. Later a high school teacher gave him a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country, a book about a Black rural minister’s search for his son set against the backdrop of apartheid in South Africa. Nibs said he was touched by the pastor’s kindness and earnestness and remembered looking up from the page and thinking, Gosh, they might be like us.
(1) Ephesians 2:14.
(2) Kriston Capps, “How Real-Estate Brokers Can Profit from Racial Tipping Points,” Bloomberg, March 3, 2015, bloomberg.com/news/articles/
(3) Tom Gjelten, “Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide,” NPR, July 17, 2020, npr.org/2020/07/17/891600067/multiracial